Everything you remember from high school…that you choose to forget.
On April 27, 2000, Daily Variety ran a full-page ad for Freaks and Geeks that read, in part, "GIVE 'FREAKS' A CHANCE!" At the time, the DreamWorks-produced NBC television series had been officially cancelled for over a month; the ad was paid for by fans, who had collected $3,746 in an online campaign to save the show.
Now that's loyalty.
So, what was the big deal about Freaks and Geeks, a show about teenagers in a medium awash in shows about teenagers? Why would the Museum of Television and Radio stage a marathon screening of a series that lasted barely a single season—a screening that sold out in 15 minutes?
It's simple, really: Freaks and Geeks kicked ass. Nothing more or less than that. It didn't revolutionize prime-time television. It didn't change the face of popular culture. It was just a show about high school life—but one that depicted the trials and tribulations of the teen years with equal measures of humor and brutal honesty, without glamorizing them or bathing them in the warm golden glow of nostalgia. Eschewing the photogenic angst of Dawson's Creek and the breezy sentimentality of The Wonder Years, Freaks and Geeks was a teen soap opera that was neither sudsy nor operatic. (Discuss.) And in its fleeting existence, there was nothing else on television quite like it.
Freaks and Geeks was doomed from the start. Weeks before it debuted in the infamous Saturday night "death slot," Time magazine suggested that "now, in fact, might be a good time to register www.save-f&g.com." And sure enough, after months of minimal promotion, repeated preemptions, and the misfortune of competing against Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, NBC pulled the plug. Given the network's infanticidal attitude towards Freaks and Geeks one wonders why it even bothered airing the series in the first place.
In any case, Freaks and Geeks has maintained a steady and vociferous cult following in the years since its premature demise. Now, thanks to the DVD format, which is fast becoming the life-after-death of failed TV shows (including such cult favorites as Firefly, The Critic, and the forthcoming Chris Carter series Millennium and Harsh Realm), this near-legendary series has been granted eternal digital life in the form of Freaks and Geeks: The Complete Series.
Over 35,000 fans demanded it, and Shout! Factory has delivered, with a stunning six-disc set containing all 18 episodes—several of which were never aired—of Freaks and Geeks, including a director's cut of the pilot episode and a truly staggering array of special features. Assuming there isn't a 12-disc Ultimate Edition of The Ropers on the horizon, it's safe to say that Freaks and Geeks: The Complete Series is the most definitive presentation of a television show you'll see on DVD this year. (Well, almost—but more about that later.)
Facts of the Case
The opening shot of the pilot episode says everything about Freaks and Geeks you need to know. As a title card reads "William McKinley High School," we open on a football field and pan left to the bleachers, where a hunky blonde jock and his pretty blonde cheerleader girlfriend are engaged in a heart-to-heart exchange straight out of 90210. "Ashley, it's just that I love you so much…it scares me!" the jock says breathlessly, as the couple lock lips in a gauzy teen-soap kiss. So far, so familiar. But then the camera swoops down beneath the bleachers, the Dawson-style alt-pop soundtrack gives way to a heavy Van Halen riff, and we meet the real stars of our show: a bunch of grungy, denim-clad stoners waxing ecstatic about Led Zeppelin; and, as the camera swoops once again to the side, we meet a group of gangly dweebs engaged in an energetic discussion of Bill Murray in Caddyshack. Welcome to the world of Freaks and Geeks.
Set in a small Michigan town in 1980, Freaks and Geeks revolves around the teenaged Weir siblings, Lindsay (Linda Cardellini, presently starring in ER and as Velma in the Scooby-Doo movies) and her younger brother Sam (John Francis Daley). Lindsay, 16, is an ace student and "mathlete" who has spun into an existential crisis following her grandmother's death and has taken to wearing a green army jacket and hanging with the disreputable "freaks," led by hunky delinquent Daniel (James Franco of Spider-Man fame, doing his best James Dean). Fourteen-year-old Sam, meanwhile, is a geek struggling to survive in a Darwinian hell of jocks, bullies, and dodgeball, navigating the rocks and shoals of high school life with his geeky compadres Neal (Samm Levine) and Bill (Martin Starr).
Meet the Freaks:
Lindsay Weir: Lindsay is the classic good-girl-gone-bad. She has begun to question everything about her life and former ambitions and is torn between her love for and loyalty to her family and "good" friends (like her Christian, straight-arrow best friend, Millie), and her need to break out of the conventional mold she is being poured into and discover her own identity.
Daniel Desario: Routinely dismissed by teachers and his own friends as a vapid, brooding bad boy with bedroom eyes, Daniel, as the leader of his gang of freaks, is content to do little else but hang out under the bleachers and smoke dope—that is, until smart-girl Lindsay enters his life. For the first time, Daniel begins to question his slacker lifestyle and wonder if there is more to him than the world has given him credit for.
Nick Andopolis (Jason Segel): Wide-eyed, passionate Nick idolizes John Bonham and dreams of becoming a superstar rock drummer. As played by Segel, who seems to be channeling the spirit of Judge Reinhold in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Nick is a stoner with the heart of a poet, a dreamer who has yet to have his illusions smashed by cold, hard reality.
Kim Kelly (Busy Philipps): The kind of badass chick who strikes terror in the hearts of lesser men, Kim is a self-described bad girl and slut, but there's much more to Kim than her angry, tough-bitch persona would suggest. As the series progresses, the cracks in Kim's carefully constructed armor open up to reveal the complicated, insecure girl within.
Ken Miller (Seth Rogen): Witheringly sarcastic and cynical, Ken is the group's snarky Freak chorus, always on hand to deflate any dramatic situation with a smartassed jibe, delivered in the deadest of deadpan tones. Nothing seems to be able to penetrate his wall of ironic detachment—that is, until he meets a girl with a tuba who proves more than his match.
Meet the Geeks:
Sam Weir: A skinny 98-pound shrimp (actually, he insists he weighs 103 pounds), Sam is caught in that awkward limbo between childhood and adolescence. When he's not being terrorized by bullies and bombarded with killer dodgeballs, Sam pursues a hopeless (or is it?) infatuation with pretty cheerleader Cindy Sanders (Natasha Melnick).
Neal Schweiber: A miniature Borscht Belt comedian prone to corny jokes and bad William Shatner impersonations, Neal knows he's a comic genius—the rest of the world just hasn't realized it yet. Like Sam, he's a geek who not-so-secretly wishes he were cool. Unlike Sam, he hasn't got a prayer.
Bill Haverchuck: The Spock of this geek triumvirate, Bill is a Geekasaurus Rex in Coke-bottle glasses, a poster boy for Asperger Syndrome whose propensity for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time is matched only by his love of Dallas and Bill Murray. While his friends yearn for popularity, Bill is more than content to exist in his comfortably dorky world, and as such is probably the most well-adjusted character in the entire series.
Plot-wise, Freaks and Geeks is a loose, low-concept affair, focusing on its characters and the small victories, defeats, and tragedies that compose the exquisite agony that is adolescence. Though it's not a sitcom by any stretch of the imagination, Freaks and Geeks is funny as hell—but its humor flows not from canned one-liners and contrived situations, but from the mundane absurdities of real life.
In writing the series, creator Paul Feig and producer Judd Apatow (who previously wrote for The Larry Sanders Show), along with a crew of writers including Mike White (School of Rock) and former Saturday Night Live writer Steve Bannos, collected their most embarrassing, painful memories of high school and foisted them upon their hapless characters. Unless you won the High School Lotto and enjoyed a carefree, untroubled teen existence, you'll find the predicaments suffered by the freaks and geeks painfully familiar. It's all here: showing up at school in a "cool" outfit only to be greeted by horrified stares, getting caught trying to pass off a fake ID, falling desperately in love with someone who gives you the kiss of crush death—being thought of as a sibling, and of course, the Lord of the Flies nightmare that is gym class.
With its '80s setting and teen focus, Freaks and Geeks could easily have settled into Wonder Years-style nostalgia or the over-the-top silliness of That '70s Show, but Feig and Apatow keep it real every step of the way, with writing that deftly steers the perilous course between mawkish sentimentality on one side and overly hip irony on the other, and characters that seem at first to be mere types (the bad boy, the nerd) but defy easy categorizations. In each lovingly crafted episode, the writers set up generic expectations only to knock them down; even the "Freaks and Geeks" labels of the title become blurred, as in one of the later episodes in which too-cool-for-school Daniel becomes a D&D geek, playing "Carlos the Dwarf."
It would be impossible to list every little thing that Freaks and Geeks gets right, but near the top of that list would be the astonishing fidelity to its time period; if you were alive and anywhere near your teen years in 1980, you'll be hard pressed to find anything about the tone and look of the show that clashes with your memories of that era. The feeling of authenticity is helped greatly by the actors, who deliver uniformly pitch-perfect, utterly natural performances. Sam, Neal, and Bill are eerily similar to the guys I used to hang out with when I was 14, and their dialogue could be transcripts of conversations I had with my fellow geeks. Paul Feig drew heavily upon his own memories of growing up in small-town Michigan in creating Freaks and Geeks, and that experience shows in the smallest details, from Kim's striped jacket to the geeks' discussions of Three's Company and The Dukes of Hazzard.
As good as the lead actors are, it's the supporting cast that fills out the rich fabric of Freaks and Geeks with often hilarious, always true to life performances. SCTV alumnus Joe Flaherty is the dad that we all either had or knew ("You know who used to cut class? Jimi Hendrix. You know what happened to him? He died!"); Mr. Rosso, the ex-hippie guidance counselor played by Dave "Gruber" Allen, steals every scene he's in; Jerry Messing as preternaturally wise fat kid Gordon Crisp is a pure delight every time he opens his mouth; and Stephen Lea Sheppard, as the Yoda-like geek guru Harris, is a steely-eyed High Priest of Nerd-dom, brimming with dryly absurd wisdom.
Then there's Tom Wilson (of Back to the Future fame) as Coach Fredricks, a character who could have been just another stereotypical meathead fascist but instead becomes a surprisingly sympathetic character; series writer Steve Bannos, in front of the camera as gruff, no-nonsense math teacher Mr. Kowchevski (whose "who would have guessed it?" secret is never revealed in the show, but pops up in the deleted scenes); Becky Ann Baker exuding maternal warmth and perplexed bewilderment in equal measure as the Weir kids' mom; and adorable Natasha Melnick as cheerleader Cindy Sanders, the epitome of every high school geek's unattainable dream girl.
My favorite supporting character, though, has to be the indefatigably pure-hearted Millie, played by Sarah Hagan. At first, Millie comes across as nothing more than a straitlaced stick in the mud, but no one on the show gets such simplistic treatment (not even the thuggish class bully, Alan, who turns out to have a sensitive side); she may be moralistic, but there's nothing self-righteous or priggish about her proselytizing. She's so pure in her goodness—and Hagan exudes creamy sweetness—that you can't help but be won over by her innocence, especially during the rare moments where she walks on the wild side…or at least sidles up to it. Millie's tireless campaign to draw her wayward friend Lindsay back onto the straight and narrow path develops, by the end of the series, into a struggle for her own soul, and out of all the characters' evolutions that we'll never see, I think I'll miss hers the most. If Freaks and Geeks ever had a lesson to teach, it's that everyone is human, and no one ought to be defined by a label.
Finally, many of the episodes feature amusing cameo appearances by such familiar faces as Ben Stiller (as a weary Secret Service agent), Rushmore's Jason Schwartzman, and Mystery Science Theater 3000's Trace Beaulieu and Joel Hodgson (the latter giving one of the funniest performances in the series as a foppish clothing store salesman). Bablylon 5's Claudia Christian also shows up in a couple of episodes as Bill Haverchuck's mom, and writer Mike White has a small recurring role as Kim's addle-brained brother.
Video and audio quality in these episodes is uniformly excellent. The full frame (OAR) image is a bit on the soft side, with a muted, high-contrast color palette and a fair amount of grain, but this is an intentional stylistic choice, as a subtle echo of the look and feel of TV and movies from the late '70s and early '80s. Bill Pope, of Matrix fame, was the cinematographer on the pilot, and the visual style he brings to that introductory episode carries throughout the series. Audio in particular stands out, with a muscular Dolby Digital 5.1 track that will give your home theater system a surprisingly decent workout for a dialogue-heavy TV show. Rock & roll is a huge part of the series, almost a character in itself (kudos to Shout! Factory for managing to work out music licensing issues for a soundtrack full of songs by such artists as The Who, Van Halen, the Grateful Dead, and Billy Joel—issues that are still holding back the DVD release of series like WKRP in Cincinnati), and this set is meant to be played loud. (Of course, if you're an apartment dweller like myself, you may actually find the loudness of the music relative to dialogue a mixed blessing.) Also included is a Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track; both tracks are English-only. Strangely, there are no subtitles to be found, an odd omission for such a feature-packed set.
With all the "Special," "Ultimate," "Extreme," and "Collector's" editions floating around out there, the world of DVD is no stranger to hyperbole. In this case, though, the hype fits the product. Not only does Freaks and Geeks: The Complete Series deliver the full run of episodes as advertised, but it comes replete with a package of bonus materials that nearly eclipses the main feature. Packed with over 40 hours of special features, including commentaries, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes footage, and audition tapes, about the only thing this six-disc set doesn't do is wash and wax your car.
Let me be perfectly honest: I didn't make it through even half of the extra features on these discs. Otherwise, I'd still be writing this review in June. We're talking about two and a half straight days of viewing here, a cornucopia of extras that makes the Lord of the Rings extended sets look like Artisan catalog releases. So, in lieu of a detailed examination of the bonus material that would require this review to be published in book form, let me just list the features disc-by-disc, to give you some idea of the wealth of material to be found here.
Disc One: "Pilot," "Beers & Weirs," "Tricks & Treats"
• Five audio commentaries with actors Linda Cardellini, Jason
Segel, John Francis Daley, Martin Starr, Samm Levine, writer J. Elvis Weinstein,
director Jake Kasdan, the parents of Daley and Sarah Hagan, Judd Apatow, Paul
Feig, and several Freaks and Geeks fans
Disc Two: "Kim Kelly is My Friend," "Tests & Breasts," "I'm With the Band"
• Six audio commentaries with actor Segel, writers Mike White,
Gabe Sachs, and Jeff Judah, directors Lesli Glatter and Ken Kwapis,
"Fredricks," "Kowchevski," and "Rosso" (actors
commenting in-character), Apatow, Feig, NBC and DreamWorks Television
executives, and production and crew members
Disc Three: "Carded & Discarded," "Girlfriends & Boyfriends," "We've Got Spirit"
• Six audio commentaries with actors Cardellini, Daley, Levine,
Segel, Dave Allen, and Seth Rogen, writer Patty Lin, Feig, Apatow, and three
Freaks and Geeks fans;
Disc Four: "The Diary," "Looks & Books," "Garage Door"
• Six audio commentaries with actors Daley, Starr, Levine, Rogen,
Sheppard, Sam McMurray, and Joe Flaherty, writers Lin, Rebecca Kirshner, Gabe
Sachs, and Jeff Judah, director Bryan Gordon, Apatow, and Feig
Disc Five: "Chokin' & Tokin'," "Dead Dogs & Gym Teachers," "Noshing & Moshing"
• Four audio commentaries with actors Franco, Starr, Hagan,
Wilson, Philipps, Claudia Christian, and Miguel Arteta, music director Mike
Andrews, writer Bob Nickman, director Kasdan, Apatow, and Feig
Disc Six: "Smooching & Mooching," "The Littlest Things," "Discos & Dragons"
• Four audio commentaries with actors Cardellini, Hagan, Rogen,
Daley, Starr, Levine, Sheppard, Segel, Jerry Messing, Natasha Melnick, and
Joanna Garcia, writers Kasdan and White, Apatow, and Feig
Also included in the box set is a 28-page booklet containing a Q&A with Apatow, an essay by Feig, and a collection of "geeky" photos.
With the possible exception of the behind-the-scenes footage, which consists mainly of the actors goofing off and mugging in front of the camera, these are solid, informative features. The commentaries are chatty, well larded with production info and insights into character and story development, and quite often amusing (especially the in-character commentary with "Coach Fredricks" and "Mr. Rosso"). One interesting detail, in case you missed it above, is that fans of the show were invited to participate in a couple of the commentary tracks, a DVD first as far as I'm aware. Freaks and Geeks owes its continued popularity and existence on DVD to the loyalty and dedication of its audience, so it's quite a classy move on the part of F&G's creators to give the show's fans such a prominent role on this DVD package.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There's only one reason I can think of for fans of Freaks and Geeks not to grab this DVD set off the shelves the moment it's available. As stuffed with extras as this release is, it's actually the "lite" version of the set. That's right: there's an even more gargantuan version out there. Available exclusively from the Freaks and Geeks official website (see sidebar for link), the "Deluxe Edition" contains everything from the regular set, plus six additional hours of features, including live table reads, a one-hour cast and crew Q&A at the Museum of Television and Radio, and a ton of other stuff, all bound in an embossed yearbook. Of course, that super-deluxe edition sells for a hefty premium at $120, over twice as expensive as the regular edition, but for the hardcore fan it may well be worth the extra dough. Between these two versions, Freaks and Geeks sets a new standard for television shows on DVD.
As critically and popularly lauded as it was, why didn't Freaks and Geeks survive? Well, as NBC exec Garth Ancier put it, in urging Apatow to give the kids "more victories" and make the show more upbeat, "Why do you want to be truthful? It's TV." Indeed. Freaks and Geeks, for all its brilliance, simply wasn't the glamorous, escapist fantasy of teenage life offered by shows like Dawson's Creek and Party of Five. The travails of high-school misfits may make for gripping entertainment, but sexy it isn't, and unsexy just doesn't sell in the ruthless, glossy world of network television. In a way, it's almost appropriate that Freaks and Geeks, a series about unpopular outcasts, got picked last for the primetime team.
Perhaps it's for the best, after all, that F&G didn't last; like John Bonham, Jimi Hendrix, and Jim Morrison, Freaks and Geeks died young and never got a chance to overstay its welcome. It could be that right now, in some alternate universe in which Freaks is wrapping up its fourth season while Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? is moldering in the trash heap of dismal flops, F&G fans are complaining about how the show has jumped the shark. All the same, I'd rather be living in that universe.
Freaks and Geeks: The Complete Series is found not guilty, but like, who cares, man?
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